Sign-on!

In 1958, there was no Interstate 95 to connect Jacksonville with the resort town of Miami.  Nearly two weeks would pass before FCC inspector Gilbert would make the eight hour drive to Jacksonville, instead of the promised one week.  In preparation for final FCC inspection, the technical team tested and retested every system in the transmitter.  They double-checked each electrical connection and pipe fitting for the water cooling system.  The final adjustment in preparation for inspection would be for the benefit of Mr. Gilbert.  Cyril would remove a bridging component (a capacitor) from one of the electrical meters on the transmitter.  In this way, Cyril hoped to get “the one thing” that the inspector would find wrong with the transmitter out of the way quickly.

It was a grey, but warm Wednesday when inspector Gilbert pulled up to the nearly completed WAPE studios on Highway 17.  Cyril and the other engineers had been anxiously awaiting his visit.  Gilbert got right to the business at hand and began his visual inspection of the glistening new Brennan transmitter.  It did not take him long to find something he did not like.  “Almost right away”, recalled Cyril “he found that capacitor I had taken off of that meter.”  The inspectors “ah-ha” moment must have made Cyril smile.  Gilbert had found “the one thing” that he could find wrong with every transmitter; Cyril’s planted “mistake”. 

The remainder of the visual inspection would go flawlessly.  The inspector would examine and admire some the custom work that the engineers had done, making a special note of the sturdy bi-folar coils which had been built especially for the WAPE project.  The inside of the transmitter did shine that day with freshly machined and polished componants.  But it was now time for the transmitter to come to life.  From the engineers control position, Cyril depressed the switch to start the flow of distilled water though the cooling system.  Suddenly there was a problem.  A real problem, not one set up for the benefit of inspector Gilbert. 

Within a few seconds, gallons of water covered the concrete floor under the transmitter and began to spread into the engineering room.  The dual water pumps were quickly shut down.  This presented a definite problem and safety hazard as gallons of water and the high voltage/high current environment of a transmitter could easily kill anyone completing the circuit. 

The source of the leak was quickly found.  Fortunately it was only a pipe joint which had come loose.  The connection in a pipe which was below one of the bi-folar coils was tightened, the water mopped up and the floor was dried.  It was time to try again.

Water flowed through the system and outside to the cooling pond.  Voltages were carefully applied to bring the transmitter up to its licensed power of 25,000 watts.  Inspector Gilbert observed each adjustment carefully.  Keep in mind, this was not a factory built transmitter which was FCC “type approved”.  The DNA in the design of this transmitter was truly unique.  Once the Brennan was up to power, it was time to modulate the signal with sound.  This would allow Gilbert to measure the frequency response and distortion of the transmitter.

From the beginning, WAPE had a unique sound.  Engineer Don Woollard recalled that “when any equipment was chosen for use at WAPE by the Brennan Brothers, it had been researched and chosen for a specific reason.  Each component contributed to the overall sound result, which is the reason it will never be duplicated.  From the needle in the phono cartridge (Elac) to the specifics of the tower structure, and the slope of the tuning network in the antenna tuning network, everything, and I do mean everything, had a reason for its existence.”

Woollard continued to say that “the facility was not built to be efficient or to sound perfect.  It was built to sound like none other. As Bill (Brennan) put it, ‘to sound louder and wider coming out of a rotten six by nine speaker in somebody’s dashboard that had been looking at nothing but Florida sunshine for about ten years!”  

By the time the afternoon of October 22 drew to a close, the Brennan’s had their inspection complete and their transmitter approved.  Everyone, including Inspector Gilbert, enjoyed a big steak dinner that night, complements of the Brennan’s.

The next morning, Gilbert would head back to Miami.  It was mid-afternoon on Thursday October 23, 1958 when WAPE Sales Manager Jim Atkins drove up to the station in a hurry.  Jim had followed the Brennan’s from Alabama where he had been in sales and on-the-air.  Atkins swung into one of the new parking spaces and made a hasty run for the front door of the building.  In his hand was a telegram which had been sent from the FCC that morning authorizing the move of WAPE from construction permit to a broadcast authorization, or license. 

“A lot of scratching around went on,” according to Don Woollard.  “A lot of moving equipment off the console surface in order for the turntables to turn and off the engineering desk in order to fire up the transmitter.”  Don remembered that “all this equipment had been thoroughly proofed during the testing period from Midnight to local sunrise and had proven to work, but this was the middle of the afternoon, and this had not been tried before.”  Taze Tisdale began the procedure to fire up the transmitter.  Due to the massive power of the transmitter, it took about ten minutes to warm up the filaments.  The honor of putting the power to the transmitter belonged to Cyril.   Recalling that day, Don Woollard said that “Cyril punched the ‘plate on’ switch, and after a couple of bangs, the transmitter stabilized.”

Meanwhile, back in the studio a be-speckled Ted Jones stepped up to the microphone and read the sign-on for WAPE for the first time.  The massive 16-inch platter on one of the turntables spun as Ted slip-cued a 45-rpm record of Floyd Cramer’s, “Flip, Flop, and Bop”.  His first rap was recalled by Woollard with great clarity as Ted would declare “that he was there to make the day for all the ‘Sugga-Boogas’ in the world and especially to “My Girl Shirl.”  Nobody had ever talked faster or with more enthusiasm over the radio in Jacksonville, Florida.”

One Response to Sign-on!

  1. John Ferree says:

    I can vividly recall being in the room when that thing was fired up. There wasn’t the polite little noises that other transmitters made. The Brennan came alive with some serious audible and visual protest. There was obviously some dangerous stuff going on behind those panels. Being in the room with it was a bit scary. On the rare occasion when it would go down and the place would get that special utter quiet that surrounds you when a radio transmitter goes silent, Ike would talk to it while he was trying to bring it back up. He would pause in the sequence and watch the meters climb and say, “Come on, baby….come on….little more….you can do it…..come on……” Then, if it came back, he would give that strange Popeye-ish “Yar…yar…yar” thing he did and hit the power. Wham! It was a really “rock and roll” thing to experience.
    Although my wife swears that we met Bill at a party, I have no recollection of him or the other family members so they were very one-dimensional people to me. I knew they were engineers so they were some mixture of my own concepts of what “owners” and “engineers” were like. Needless to say, I wasn’t even close.
    I did realize at the time, though, that they obviously created a corporate environment in which I was given the tools to do my job, was never lied to, and was always treated with respect.
    John Ferree
    PS: So “Flip, Flop & Bob” by Floyd Cramer was the first record It’s absolutely perfect.

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